Help Your Child Make and Keep Friends

 ADHD Weekly, February 21, 2019

It’s hard to watch your bubbly and outgoing child struggle to keep friends. ADHD symptoms often get in the way of social skills, and parents feel at a loss as to how to help.

“Obviously we can’t make friends for our kids, but there are a lot of things we can do as parents to smooth the way for them,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, coauthor of Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends.

“The social deficits that come along with ADHD are actually the hardest part of the disorder, and it can be heartbreaking when children feel like nobody likes them,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. But, she adds, you can offer them some guidance and support when it comes to making and keeping friends.

Creating opportunities for friendship

Children make friends when they’re having fun together, so look for opportunities for your child to spend time with other children near her age. That may include setting up playdates with other children in her class or from scouting or youth groups. Does your child have an interest in sports, art or music classes, or something else? Look for community activities that focus on those interests as another place to meet new friends.

Dr. Kennedy-Moore encourages parents to pay quiet attention during their child’s playdates and intervene if things don’t seem to be going well—without embarrassing your child. You might call your child aside, for example, and ask if she notices anything about her friend—whether she seems bored, for example. Then share your observations and ask your child what she can do to be sure both children are enjoying themselves.

“You can come up with signals for your child, so a certain hand signal or a keyword is a jolt of, ‘Oh, I need to calm down,’ or, ‘I need to check in with my friend and make sure he likes that idea,’—whatever it might be that a child is struggling with,” suggests psychologist Erika Carpenter Rich, PhD.

“Hopefully, you plant enough seeds by fourth or fifth grade that you can back off a little and allow them more freedom,” says Dr. Rich. This may depend on the strength of your child’s current friendship. “You’re hoping your child finds a reciprocal friendship: I really like you, and you really like me.”

Role-playing and modeling friendship

You can practice friendship skills with your child as another way of helping her. Together with your child, imagine various scenarios that might come up and role-play being a friend during them. Dr. Kennedy-Moore suggests that you play cooperative games with your child and model friendship behaviors. Practicing how to be a gracious when winning or losing a game is also helpful.

Social media is not always friendly

Does your child have a cellphone or tablet? Keep an eye on your child’s social media accounts, Dr. Rich recommends. That means having access to accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat—whatever your child uses as communication tools. Check messages, pictures, and posts from time to time, and more frequently if you are concerned there’s a problem. Talk with your child about what it means to be a good friend in person and online, and help her identify traits to emulate. Help her to understand when comments or images are not kind or considerate and talk about the impact those posts could have on a friend or on her.

“Things can happen on social media that parents aren’t aware of. All children have difficulty knowing how to respond to a lot of the demands of social media,” says Dr. Rich. Posts and discussions can be the starting point for conversations with your child about social skills she should practice.

When to standing back

“Kids with ADHD are often very bright and creative and have great ideas in play, but they forget to make sure that everybody else is on board with those ideas,” says Dr. Rich. “So having them check in with their friends is an important concept to reinforce.”

It’s hard to stand back and watch your child stumble or—worse yet—fail socially. But it’s also an important part of growing up.

Children learn resilience when they are encouraged to solve their problems, rather than having an adult always smooth the way for them, says Dr. Rich. Help your child to think of ways to handle a situation, but allow her the room to address the problem without interference in most situations. While hard to deal with in the moment, these are often valuable lessons in managing emotions, resolving conflict, and supporting friends.

The exception is always when you see friendships souring. Teasing that is continuous or is mean-spirited should never be tolerated. If you suspect your child is being bullied or is bullying someone, it’s time to intervene.

“These are things we all need to go through in order to come out the other end stronger and more self-confident,” Dr. Rich says. “There’s a tendency to want to protect children from all of these things, but I think that does them a disservice in the end.”

Looking for more?

Was there a time your child struggled socially? What did you do to help? When did you know you needed to step back?